Felicia Haberfeld, a native of Poland who fought to reclaim her husband’s ancestral home in Auschwitz decades after it was seized by the Nazis, has died. She was 98.
Haberfeld died April 19 of natural causes at her Los Angeles home, said her son, Stephen.
She was a leader in the Holocaust-survivor community in Los Angeles and almost 60 years ago co-founded the 1939 Club, one of the oldest and largest organizations of survivors of the Holocaust.
In 1961, she became a founding board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and was on the board at the time of her death.
“Our museum is a teaching museum,” a regal Haberfeld said in a recent video about the museum. “Teaching … what happened, why did it happen and should never happen again.”
Mark Rothman, the museum’s executive director, said her “cheerful attitude, perspective and wisdom and deep commitment to our mission” to educate about and commemorate the Holocaust “will be hard to replace.”
Her son called her “one of the most positive and forward-looking people ... which was extraordinary given the tragedy that was also a part of her life.”
In 1939, Haberfeld and her husband Alfons were aboard an ocean liner returning from a trip to the New York World’s Fair when they learned Germany had invaded Poland.
The ship was diverted to Scotland and the couple were unable to return to Poland, where they had left their 2-year-old daughter, Francziska Henryka, with her grandmother.
They never again saw their daughter, whom the Germans found hiding in a cellar in 1942. Her cries had given her away. She died in a Nazi extermination camp, as did most of Haberfeld’s relatives, who were Jewish, including her parents and younger brother.
“I am only one story, there are so many of us,” Haberfeld said and sobbed as she told her story to the Associated Press in 1993. “The whole world expects us to be normal, but it is difficult.”
The Haberfelds sold jewelry and other belongings to raise passage back to the United States, where they lived in Baltimore and had their son before settling in Los Angeles in 1948.
The 40-room mansion known as Haberfeld House, where she had been a bride, was turned into headquarters for the German army and was eventually nationalized by the Poles.
The couple did not see the home again until 1967. By then it was falling apart and many of its treasures had been carried off. Three years later, an “emotionally devastated” Alfons died at 66, The Times reported in 1998.
When a cousin mentioned in 1991 that the home and family distillery next door were about to be auctioned, Haberfeld waged an unsuccessful campaign to buy it back. She wanted to turn it into a museum of Jewish life in prewar Auschwitz.
Haberfeld House was sold in 1998 to a consortium based in Krakow, Poland, that planned to turn it into a hotel. They paid about $23,000, according to a BBC report.
With her son’s help, Haberfeld went to court in Poland in the early 1990s and got back several pieces of furniture and paintings that had not been carted away.
Haberfeld went to court once more, in 2001, as the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit to try to collect on several insurance policies her husband had taken out in the late 1930s from one of Europe’s largest insurance firms. She later settled her case.
She was born July 21, 1911, in Krakow, to Leon and Helena Spierer. Her father worked in textiles and real estate.
After earning a degree in German literature from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Haberfeld met her future husband.
Trained as a chemist, he ran the family’s distillery in Auschwitz and was the last president of the city’s Jewish community. Once they immigrated to Baltimore, he found work in a distillery.
In Los Angeles, she received a master’s degree in library science from USC and spent about 15 years as a city librarian, mainly in the San Fernando Valley.
With her husband and a dozen others in Los Angeles in 1952, she founded the 1939 Club, named for the year Germany invaded Poland. She was instrumental in establishing an endowed chair in Holocaust studies at UCLA, her son said.
In an oral history from the 1980s, Haberfeld spoke movingly of her “odyssey” and expressed disbelief that she had survived it.
“Something starts ticking when everything else fails,” she said. “How much more … can one take? A lot.”
Of her commitment to Holocaust education, Haberfeld said, “I dedicated part of my life to that cause because it must never happen again. Period.”
In addition to her son Stephen, a private judge and former Watergate prosecutor, Haberfeld is survived by a granddaughter and a great-grandchild.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.